My Hearts Inflames. My body’s Strange: A review of Svankmajer’s ALICE.


You are a child and you dream. The dreams do not always make sense. There are gaps in your understanding of the images and context. Sometimes you wake with little memory of the actual context of the dream. You do, however, remember how the dream made you feel. Frightened and scared and at a loss as to what to do. The fear clings to your insides until you become aware of where you are; you are home and you are safe. It is said that the reason we dream like this as children is because our subconscious is trying to make sense of the adult world. In the dreams your childish brain is trying to understand things that are yet to be understood fully. It could be argued that dreams like these are strange otherworldly preambles to future epiphanies that will extricate you from childhood and fling you head first, into adulthood.

Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 film ALICE, is a cinematic journey that feels like the sort of dream you would have had as a child. It is both dark, playful and surreal. Alice is played by the characteristically beguiling Kristyna Kohoutova and at times by a doll. This gives the film a twist that dislodges your preconceived ideas of childhood and femininity. It can be a constant battle to try and keep true to ourselves when a female and not get sucked into the idea of society that little girls should act, in many ways, like an actual doll. Be quiet and sit still and listen attentively to any grown man. Kiss your uncle, even if you do not want to. Svankmajer’s Alice will have none of that thank you very much. She has a higher purpose. That of adventure. She is not scared to explore a strange and at times menacing environment. This is what struck such a cord with me. The fearlessness and determination that is made so apparent, in every step Alice takes throughout the strange kingdom of weird whimsy that is so exhilaratingly free of the twee so fragrant in other adaptions of Alice In Wonderland.   That is not to say that Tim Burton’s 2010 film did not move me. It did but that could have had more to do with the fact that when I say that at the cinema. I was living in Manchester and doing it alone.

This idea of solo living has been one that has become more and more appealing to me as I grow older. It is true that I saw ALICE by Svenkmajer alone on a cold cold night. So, the theme for my life has not changed all that much. I still do things regardless of whether I can russle up a cohort. Just as Alice does time and time again. It is this that propels my affinity with Alice. That and my desire to extricate myself from the patriarchal upbringing that had me believing getting married and having children was the be all and end all of a women’s existence. Alice is the antidote to such understanding.


In Svankmajer’s ALICE there is a scene early one in which she follows the white rabbit into a desk drawer. As she is rooting around to try and find him, she pulls a face of sudden pain and pulls her hand out of the drawer. She has cut her finger and she holds it up in front of her to better see the glistening drop of red blood that has oozed out. With no grown ups around there is no use in making a fuss. She stares in wonder at the blood. The beauty of the abject quite salient in her expression. How glorious it can be when you realize your mortality. The fact that under your skin an entire universe that is greatly unknown, exists so close and yet so far at the same time. After staring at the blood she simply licks the blood away. There is a savoring of the moment as she ingests the very thing that just came out from under her skin, such an exquisite show of what connects us all. If you cut us? Do we not bleed?   This slight draw back does not dishearten Alice. She is curious and wants to find out what that white rabbit is running so late for. She gets further and further inside the draw and soon there is only her legs pointed up towards the sky and swaying and swaying as she delves deeper and deeper until there is nothing left of her showing on screen. She has been engulfed by the desk and her own desire to find out the truth.

Throughout the film young Alice narrates her own adventures. The camera zooms in so close to her face that only her pale pink mouth is visible and takes up most of the screen. I fount this to be quite confronting. I found it difficult to look straight at the mouth of the little girl playing Alice. There was something incredibly sensual about seeing the mouth that close. Nobody really gets such a close look at a child’s mouth on a big screen, in this manner. It is a beautiful perfect young girl’s mouth and it is telling her own story. The close up of the mouth draws the spectator into the narrative closer and more intimately. Though she is not an expert of the wonderland, Alice is our guide through this world.

Food. Since Eve was a naughty garden guest and ate the apple, women have been made to feel guilty about food in a million different ways. Alice does not feel any discomfort about eating and drinking strange things. The are objects that help her adventure move forward and the tarts are delicious. She has a childlike appetite for sweet things and she savers putting her finger in the small bottle that invites her drink from it. She pulls out her finger slowly and licks it tentatively . When she discovers the black liquid tastes good, she puts her finger in her mouth and sucks all the juice of her finger. In a similar way that Kirsten Dunst’s depressed character eats strawberry jam from the jar with her fingers, in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. The feel and sensation of experiences must have a very real and all encompassing physical process. How many times have people eaten things to try and get smaller? Or eaten things to try and get bigger? Or to get high? My grandmother used to sneak entire raw eggs into my chocolate milkshakes, when I was a small sick child. Alice’s relationship with food is beautiful and devil may care. She is not fussy and never wrinkles her nose up at the prospect of eating. She bites, chews and swallows what she has to get by. That is not an easy thing for some people.

My most beloved part is the ending of the film because of it’s dark humour and playful macarbre nature of Alice. Svanmajer’s ALICE seemed like he had ripped the deepest parts of my heart’s intentions and built a narrative just for my own perverse pleasure. I have always believed there is a certain amount of Alice and the queen of hearts inside of me and they both battle for supremacy. I eat weird things and drink stranger things. But, also there are times when I simply want to gather an army together, stand before them and shout at the top of my lungs,


This is what great cinema does: it reflects parts of you that you never knew existed before, but, sweet Jesus, you are glad they are there.